The first highlight; On Monday, June 23rd myself and 12 other “Rome Experience men” along with Father Eric Nielsen embarked on “the way of the 7 churches”, a traditional pilgrimage started by St. Philip Neri in the 16th century. Along the way we prayed all four mysteries of the rosary, spent time in the Churches for mental prayer, laughed, sweated a lot, and returned home exhausted after walking a total of 19 miles! Before we started I had thought “it’s only walking, it won’t be too hard.” In reality, it was pretty difficult, and I think the Lord will reward us with some special graces! It was a great day, and I know St. Philip would have been proud of us. I cannot fail to mention that among the many churches we visited were the four major basilicas: St. Peter’s, St. Paul outside the walls, St. Mary Major, and St. John Lateran (The place of the Holy Father’s cathedra). We also visited St. Mary in Trastevere, St. Lawrence, and St. Sebastian. What a great experience to walk many of the streets of Rome on pilgrimage, following the example of so many Catholics who have gone before us.
The second highlight of the week was unforeseen, but especially sweet for me. On Tuesday morning we were going through various churches and learning about their art and architecture. Inside one of the churches, we were told that Mary had appeared in an apparition at one of the altars, and that the apparition had been approved by Rome. If this was not amazing enough, we were then told that St. Maximilian Kolbe, the “saint of Auschwitz” who had great devotion to the Blessed Virgin later came to this church and celebrated his first Mass at the altar where the apparition occurred. Since my first year of seminary, my rector gave me a biography of St. Maximilian Kolbe, and since then he has been a great inspiration for me in following the Lord’s call to the priesthood. He was a young man who struggled in discernment, but ultimately decided to consecrate his life completely to God as a Capuchin friar. He voluntarily gave his life for another man who had been chosen to be executed by starvation. When Maximilian was asked who he was by the soldier in charge he said, “I am a Catholic Priest, old and good for nothing.” Maximilian thus convinced the soldier to take him and spare the life of the other man. While in the starvation bunker amidst some other prisoners, it is said that Maximilian turned the space of the bleak starvation bunker into a chapel, filling the air with prayers and songs and encouraging the other prisoners to not lose hope, to trust in God. At the altar I touched my rosary to the altar stone, and asked Mary and Maximilian to pray for me, that I may be holy and courageous.
The third highlight of the week was attending Mass over St. Philip Neri’s tomb. After Mass each of us spent time asking St. Philip, “the apostle of Rome” to pray for us. As Father Roger Landry said a couple weeks earlier, St. Philip should be our model for the priest of the New Evangelization. He was a man who dedicated his whole being to God as a priest. He renewed the Church in Rome through his joy, his simplicity, and his dedication to making the love of Christ known through his actions. He came to a Rome which was very far from God, and he worked hard to bring the people back God. He would ask people on the streets “brothers, when are we going to start doing great things for God?” He made sure that the music and the liturgy at his church were beautiful. He made himself available for confessions. He opened up his house so as to talk and teach young kids from the street about the faith, and to give them a place to pray in common. One of my favorite stories is how St. Philip would shave half of his beard off and continue with his daily work unabashed so as to grow in humility through the looks and comments he received for his unusual looks.
On Wednesday we had the great opportunity to see Papa Francesco at the Audience! This was an amazing opportunity. St. Peter’s square was full of Catholics, and there was a spirit of joy in the air. I could really sense the universality of the Catholic faith being among so many Catholics from all over the world. At the beginning of the audience Pope Francis met with, touched, and prayed with many sick people; adults, adolescents and small children. As I looked on I could not help but think about how the sick people would come to Jesus and later to his apostles to be healed during the first century. Now too, 2000 years later they were coming to the Holy Father, the Vicar of Christ on earth and a successor of the apostles. It was incredible to see how Pope Francis gave his complete attention to each person, and you could sense the immense joy and comfort that these sick people received from being with the pope. One boy in particular leaned into Pope Francis and buried his head in the Pope’s chest while wrapping his arms around the Holy Father. This boy was not with a stranger, or a public authority whose dignity did not allow for affection, this boy was completely comfortable in the presence of his father.
As I write the last highlight, 2 come to mind, so I will briefly share both. On Thursday morning, we had a meeting with Monsignor Jorge from the Congregation for the Clergy. He is in charge of all of the seminary formation which goes on around the world. This man was incredibly humble, and upon his entrance into the meeting room he walked around the table and shook each of our hands, greeted us with a warm smile, and asked where we were from. Then, during the meeting he asked us to give our honest feedback of our experience of seminary formation thus far. Many of us shared the great gift of seminary life, and also various areas where improvement could be made so as to help us be holier Christians and better priests. Monsignor said he would take our meeting to his own prayer, and work to make our seminaries the best possible. He told us that we as seminarians should be proactive and do all we can in and among our seminaries to make them places which really cultivate holiness.
Thursday night, I and five other men had the great privilege of serving mass for the feast of St. Josemaria Escriva, at the church of St. Eugenio. We were very grateful for the opportunity. The presider over the mass was the prelate for Opus Dei, who knew St. Josemaria personally earlier in his life. The church was absolutely full, and the liturgy was beautiful. It was wonderful to see so many priests and laymen together celebrating a man who gave them a way to seek holiness, and inspired them to “not be sterile, but to blaze a trail” by living totally for Jesus Christ!
Reflecting upon the week, I am overcome with the richness, the depth, the breadth of the Catholic faith, and thus, the love of God who has freely given us the gift of faith. Because I have been given the gift to be baptized into the one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic faith, I have had the opportunity to grow up in a family of God that stretches and spans across history and across the globe. The apostle Paul tells us to rejoice always, and we truly have reason to rejoice. God is so good. He loves us as his children, and each moment we live is a gift from him. I ask the Lord to give each one of us the grace to rejoice always, whether we are amidst trial, affliction, persecution and suffering, or whether we are enjoying a cup of gelato in Rome. God is good all the time, and so we never have an excuse not to rejoice. Let us pray especially that those who are in the midst of great trial will be given the gift to hope and rejoice in God, whatever circumstance they may be facing. And, let us never live a day without giving thanks to our Awesome God. Praised be Jesus Christ!
Seminarian for the Diocese of Madison, WI
Rome Experience Class of 2014